What's the matter with kids today? Ask Anne
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What's the old joke about teenagers -- can't live with them, can't kill them? Or is that the one teens tell about their parents? Or is it husbands and wives? Ahh, family life.
This is the kind of ambivalence -- edgy, funny, true -- that Anne Lamott explores so well in both her best-selling books of essays and her novels.
Ms. Lamott's wonderfully rich new novel picks up the story of characters we first met in the 1984 novel, "Rosie," then saw again in 1999's "Crooked Little Heart." In the first, Rosie was a wild-hearted, wise child, comforting her heavy-drinking mother Elizabeth as they grieved the death of Rosie's father.
In the second, Elizabeth is sober, remarried to a writer named James, and Rosie is 13, a champion tennis player.
At the start of "Imperfect Birds," it is the summer before Rosie's senior year of high school. Like all of Ms. Lamott's novels, this one is set in the mellow end of the San Francisco Bay Area. Loyal readers will be familiar with this place, the Marin County coastal town, filled with weavers and various spiritual types, "like Mayberry on acid."
Elizabeth has secretly read Rosie's journal and knows that she has tried cocaine, smokes an occasional cigarette and is no longer a virgin. But she also gets A's in her AP classes, works with children at the church, coaches her favorite teacher in tennis and has good friends, all not so bad, on balance.
But Elizabeth doesn't know everything. Her daughter does drugs because she can. She gets them from her parents' medicine cabinets, from the kids' prescriptions for ADHD, from anyone who has anything and is willing to share.
Ms. Lamott brilliantly explores what "Just Say No" campaigns will never admit: That while drug abuse clearly ruins your life, first, it turns you on, opens your mind, makes whatever the moment is more than it is.
If Rosie propels the action of the novel, Elizabeth is its heart and anchor. Ms. Lamott writes convincingly from both points of view, though she identifies more deeply with the mother.
Every adult who has ever wished the kid would pull up his pants or comb her hair will tune in with Elizabeth, torn between anger at Rosie's thoughtlessness and her motherly paranoia over every bad thing that might befall her.
This family has auxiliary members, too: James's best friend is a high school teacher, and his wife, Elizabeth's best friend, works at their hip church. In their conversations Ms. Lamott dispenses much of the life-weary, life-celebrating wisdom her fans love her for.
If anyone should be able to guide a child through the rocks of adolescence, it's these people. And yet that seems to be her point -- that any kid can stumble, and even the best-intentioned parents can blow it.
Fans of Anne Lamott's work will find everything they love in "Imperfect Birds." She has always written better about the subtle daily textures than about the bold plots of life, and here there is the customary close attention to the seasons in Northern California, the tide pools, the birds.
The novel takes us deeply enough into Rosie's growing problems with sex, drugs and parents that the ending seems a bit abrupt, as though the novel just stops. If this were a movie, you'd turn to your companion and say, "Clearly, there's a sequel in the works." And indeed we hope there may at some point be a fourth book about this ever-engaging family.
But Ms. Lamott has never been a writer interested in tying everything up, making problems go away with simple answers. Rather, she puts her energy into making them funny, or at the very least recognizable.
First Published May 2, 2010 12:00 am